The shimmery curls and wavy patterns in the polished auburn wood of the Hawaiian Acacia koa tree make it among the most prized and expensive woods in the world. You’ll find this rare tree growing only in Hawaii, where it shares a name—koa—with the Hawaiian word for “bravery” and “warrior.” Hawaiians have used the tree for centuries to build traditional surfboards and sturdy voyaging canoes capable of launching off lava-rock coastlines and tackling the open ocean.
Want to have a truly Hawaiian nature experience? Then venture inland from the sea, where you’ll hear the trade winds rustling the koas’ sickle-shaped leaves, as it has been doing for centuries. Here are some hikes where you can go to get in the grove.
Kahana Valley State Park
A walk through a resident Hawaiian community in Kahana Valley State Park on Oahu takes you to the trailhead of Nakoa Trail (named for the tree), an adventurous 2.5-mile hike. Here, the earthen trail above a wet, lush valley is filled with fallen mountain apples and damp soil. Be prepared to ford several small streams—take your shoes off and grip the rocks with your toes!—before reaching drier climes and the tall groves of airy mountain koa. Don’t forget to pack swimming gear, so you can try swinging, George-of-the-Jungle-style, into the clear mountain stream from the rope swing at the end of the hike.
Koke’e State Park
A deep, colorful crack in the earth, that Mark Twain first (and accurately) called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” isn’t the only reason you should visit Koke’e State Park on the Island of Kauai. Loads of hiking trails, including paths through some of the state’s most beautiful forests, also beckon. Try the easy Puu Ka Ohelo trail, a.k.a. Berry Flat Loop, where you smell the ripe fruits of the strawberry guava trees and see giant Hawaiian tree ferns before finding something peculiar indeed: giant California redwoods which were planted in the 1930s and now tower high above the gnarly koa forest landscape.
Kona Hema Preserve
Early Hawaiians prized the largest koa because they fashioned their voyaging canoes from the trunk of a single koa tree. Few massive trees remain, but in Hawaii Island’s westerly Kona Hema Preserve in Honomalino, one tree towers well over 100 feet. You find it surrounded by 100,000 acres of protected forest, where the endangered Hawaiian hoary bat patrols by night and you can hear the strange call of the Hawaiian hawk echoing through the canopy. The private area is managed by the Nature Conservancy, so you have to volunteer or join in on a scheduled educational event to enter—but it’s worth your trouble.
Another, easier-to-access spot on Hawaii Island—home to most of the state’s koa—is in the restored Kipukapuaulu Trail, one of the tiny town of Volcano’s best-kept secrets. There’s an old lava tube from a flow that occurred more than 600 years ago, and the trail borders Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (but you don’t have to pay the entrance fee to access it). It’s one of the best places in the state to spot birds only found in Hawaii. You see their red and green flashes darting between the branches of rugged, native trees high overhead.
Hawaiian Legacy Tours
A more active experience awaits on the slopes of Mauna Kea, where Hawaiian Legacy Tours takes you to plant a koa tree. Centuries ago, the land belonged to King Kamehameha the Great, but was later cleared for cattle ranching. On the tours, you learn about the king and the area’s cultural history before getting down and dirty to plant a commemorative sapling generated from seeds from the king’s old remaining trees. Over 300,000 saplings have been planted this way to date. When you return to Hawaii, you can revisit your tree—they keep close records of each planting.
You can also remember your Hawaiian adventure with a beautiful koa wood souvenir. You’ll find something for everyone—from wedding bands to watches, picture frames to ukuleles, wine bottle holders, clocks, rocking chairs, and more from fine purveyors such as Martin & MacArthur.